A London college is about fire hundreds of academics. David Colquhoun, a UK-based pharmacologist and an academic at Nottingham University UK has written about it. Colquhoun’s article is restricts itself to details of the obscure episode. Philip Moriarty of Nottingham has more general observations.
Colquhoun notes with no (apparent) trace of irony that being unceremoniously dumped was formerly a fate reserved for post-doctoral candidates.
Until recently, this problem was largely restricted to post-doctoral fellows (postdocs). They already have PhDs and they are the people who do most of the experiments.
Moriarty says his job is not to ‘secure research income’ but ‘to do high-quality research’.
A few reminders might be useful for Colquhoun and Moriarty.
In ‘regular’ times, university administrators are not the only ones who use publication records and grants as a metric for assessing ‘productivity’. Scientists do it. From lowly two-cubicle one-bench labs to the two-dozen-postdoc factories that churn out papers, grad students and professors talk in terms of abstracts and papers. Scientific productivity is measured in numbers of papers, grant money and number of grants. It is the lingua franca of scientific gossip, it is how scientists look up and down each other. The small labs behave no differently from the big ones.
Doing science and quality research takes a peculiar bent of mind. You might be surprised but this bent of mind is not a requisite to be in a lab. Hard work, diligence, a cheerful nature and obedience are. Let’s suppose you are actually fit to do science but lack one of these abilities. There is a good chance you’ll get drummed out.
Contrary to what Moriarty implies, there are no jobs that are about ‘doing high-quality research’. Despite attempts to the contrary, scientific advancement remains largely a product of serendipity (and pigheadedness). Science is a lottery – you may be brilliant and do high-quality work, but what you produce could well end up being crap.
In addition, Moriarty implies having more scientists in jobs is a public entitlement. But the forces of feedback set in motion by the very academics arguing vigorously for restrictions have to act somewhere.
For instance, you are a social sciences researcher consistently arguing for a carbon tax – with high-quality research. The state government listens, uses your papers as evidence and passes laws. Factories and farms shut down, the tax kitty dries up and soon you are having to close your lab and let go of your post-doc.
Go ahead, blame administration and management.
UPDATE: Stew Green points out in comments my post seemed to club Colquhoun and Moriarty’s views together. I thought I was separating the two in my first paragraph but maybe it was not clear enough.
Colquhoun refers to a PNAS article by former NAS head Bruce Alberts and former NIH boss Harold Varmus in his support. Interestingly, PNAS published a response (h/t Anthony Watts):
In their article, Alberts and co point out what they say is the ‘root cause’ of problems with research funding:
We believe that the root cause of the widespread malaise is a longstanding assumption that the biomedical research system in the United States will expand indefinitely at a substantial rate.
When people say they have identified a cause, they usually have identified an effect. The PNAS authors are no different here. An assumption, or an impression that biomedical research will ‘expand indefinitely’ but held by whom?